Against Bloodshed and Violence
Note: Printed in Salt & Light (Plough 1998); a shortened translation of the article "Gegen Blut und Gewalt" published in Das Neue Werk on April 15, 1921, as a protest against the widespread rioting which took place in German cities at the time in connection with general elections. Radical working-class groups clashed with extreme rightists, and government forces intervened. Those taking a stand for peace and nonviolence were attacked as "seducers" and "prophets of lying" even by so-called "Christian" publicists, while Communist and Nationalist papers were instigating murder and more violence.
The quote from Hesse, a German writer and poet, appeared in his magazine "Vivos Voco" in March 1919.
Again and again in the life of a nation, and in the class struggle for existence between nations, pent-up tensions and conflicts erupt in violent outbursts. These outbursts reveal mutual exploitation and oppression and the savage instincts of covetous passion. This eruption of inordinate passions and merciless countermeasures has so intensified and spread that a decisive word is needed.
Some may see it as their task to uphold law and order by murderous means. Others may believe they are called to fight with bloodstained fists for the oppressed, for a future of justice and peace; others may regard their own race as holy and declare war on another race.
Our life as Christians has deeper roots. We have been entrusted with a task that looks further ahead. The mystery of life has been revealed to us because Christ means everything to us. We feel united with the entire church of Christ in which no group or individual can live isolated from the rest. They are members and organs of the one living body whose spirit, head, and heart is the coming Christ. The testimony of our life, therefore, is the essence of Christ’s own life. He discloses to us the mystery of life when he points to the birds in the air and to the flowers in the meadow, and when he expects good fruits only from the healthy tree. He reveals to us the heart of the Father, who sends his rain and sunshine on the good and the bad.
Life means growth and development, the unfolding of love. Violence and coercion do not allow life to grow—they stifle it. We have been commissioned to serve life and build it up, no matter whether this seems evolutionary or revolutionary. The character of life rejects what is dying and awakens what is living to new life. This means development and upheaval. Yet no evolution, no upheaval, is able to eradicate the deepest root of world suffering: universal guilt, the poison of evil in hate, lust, depravity, and killing.
Organic life brings new birth. It springs from God who is at work in all living things. Yet a new beginning always brings with it a separation, a painful liberation, a revolutionizing of the old. Every individual—indeed all of humankind—needs this new birth.
We believe in this new birth—a life of light from God. We believe in a future of love and constructive fellowship. We believe in the peace of God’s kingdom and that he will come to this earth. This faith does not mean we are imagining things only for the future—God will bring this future and give us his heart and spirit today. Christ lives in his church, which is the embodiment of his life. As the hidden, living seed of the future kingdom, the church has been entrusted with the peace that is characteristic of her and the love-spirit of the future. Therefore she shows herself in the present too, as justice, peace, and joy in this world.
No matter what its origin, we must speak up in protest against every instance of bloodshed and every power of violence and death. Our witness and will for peace, for love at any cost, even at the cost of our own lives, has never been more necessary than it is today. Those who tell us that questions such as nonviolence, conscientious objection, and discipleship of Jesus are not relevant today are wrong. Today these questions are more relevant than ever. They will require perseverance in an absolute love that gives one the courage to die for one’s beliefs.
Jesus knew he would never conquer the spirit of the world with more violence, but only by greater love. This is why he overcame the temptation to seize power over the kingdoms of this earth. What he proclaimed was God’s rulership in the present and the future. God’s will was present in his life, his deeds, his words, and his suffering. This is why in the Sermon on the Mount he speaks of those who are strong in love, the peacemakers, those with heart who will inherit the land and possess the earth. The kingdom of God belongs to them. He took up the ancient proclamation of peace and justice which belongs to the future kingdom of God. He deepened the crucial "Thou shalt not kill" which ruled out all murder. He showed that any cruelty—any brutal violation of the inner life—injures body, soul, and, in fact, God, just as much as killing the body.
It is regrettable that serious-minded Christians today do not have the same clear witness of Jesus and early Christianity as was represented and proclaimed so strongly in other centuries by living churches and movements. These felt that war and the military profession were irreconcilable with the calling of Christianity.
We do not deny the existence of radical evil and sin, nor that the world will come to an end. But we do not believe in the triumph of evil. We believe in God, the end of the world as he wills it, the rebirth of the earth and humankind. This faith is not evolutionism, an inevitable ascent to greater perfection. It believes in the growth of the divine seed in consciences. Its faith is in the Christ-spirit, in individual rebirth, in the fellowship of the church. It also believes in an upheaval through world catastrophe. It sees war, revolution, and other horrors of the end as part of the judgment and collapse of this depraved and degenerate world of compulsion and coercion.
Faith expects everything from God alone. It is certain, however, that God’s seed and God’s light is at work everywhere and that he reveals his heart and his future kingdom in his church, the church of Christ. True, the tension between anti-Christian power and the Christ-life is present everywhere today, even in the Christian church. And it will become stronger the more radically we in absolute love hold on to faith in what is to come. Faith is not afraid of the collision between the anti-Christian and Christ-centered spiritual forces. It expects and longs for this confrontation because the end has to come, and after it the completely new world.
It is an error to think that all Jesus wanted was to nourish the hungry soul. He concerned himself just as much with an individual’s body as with his soul. Jesus also carried on the proclamation of the future world order of peace and justice from John the Baptist and the prophets of the Old Testament, as surely and determinedly as he continued the proclamation of the rebirth of the individual.
Because we know there are many today who cannot respond to the language of the Old Testament—or who are not yet ready to do so—it is our task to spread the message of peace in whatever way we can. Hermann Hesse, though an unbeliever, speaks with freshness and clarity on the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill":
We are not yet men; we are still on our way to humanity. Every pupil of Lao-tse, every disciple of Jesus, every follower of Francis of Assisi was much further ahead than the laws and reasoning of present-day civilization. Yet the sentence, "Thou shalt not kill" has been honored faithfully and obeyed by thousands of people for thousands of years. There has always been a minority of well-meaning people who had faith in the future, and obeyed laws which are not listed in any worldly code. As soldiers they showed compassion and respected their enemies, even during the last, horrible war, or consistently refused to kill and hate when ordered to do so, suffering imprisonment and torture as a result.
And we who believe in the future will raise the ancient demand again and again, "Thou shalt not kill." It is the basic demand of all progress, of all true humanity which is to come.
We kill at every step, not only in wars, riots, and executions. We kill when we close our eyes to poverty, suffering, and shame. For the consistent socialist all property is theft. In the same way all disrespect for life, all hardheartedness, all indifference, all contempt is, in the eyes of the believer, nothing else than killing. It is possible to kill not only what is in the present, but also what is in the future. With just a little skepticism we can kill a good deal of the future in a young person. Life is waiting everywhere. The future is flowering everywhere. We see only a small part of it and step on much of it with our feet. We kill with every step.
This is why every one of us has a personal task. This task is not to help all of humankind a little; it is not to improve some institution, not to abolish a particular kind of killing. All this is good and necessary, too. Yet the most important task for you and me is this: to take a step forward, in our own personal lives, from animal to human being.